Failure to Invest in Public Transportation Hurts Communities Across the Country

By Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

The New York Times recently profiled the story—or the commute, rather—of Sheila James, a 62-year-old federal office worker who lives in Stockton, California, but works 80 miles away in San Francisco. She leaves home at 4 a.m. so she can catch a bus and two trains to get her job as a public health adviser. Her total commuting time? Three hours—each way.

This intense commute isn’t by choice. Sheila is part of a growing community of working-class men and women known as “extreme commuters” who, because of skyrocketing real estate prices and a lack of affordable housing, are forced to travel more than 90 minutes one way each day to get their jobs. For Sheila, and millions of Americans like her, a combination of public transit and commuter options aren’t just alternatives to the office carpool—they are lifelines to economic stability.

But strains placed on state and local budgets mean these vital services are under threat. Reductions in service, maintenance and system expansions don’t just affect extreme commuters like Sheila—they have profound impacts on communities all across the country.

When systems don’t have funds for the most basic of needs, like maintenance, workers who rely on public transit to travel even short distances may find their commutes grueling and unpredictable. The men and women who make a living operating and maintaining these systems are often forced to work with outdated equipment and insufficient manpower. And our country’s unemployed, underemployed and lowest-income populations, who can’t afford vehicles but can afford bus and subway fares, are put at an even greater disadvantage.

Failing to address our nation’s commuting problems doesn’t just hurt those who use or want to use public transportation—these failures hurt the entire economy. Every dollar spent on public transit returns four dollars to our economy, and every billion dollars spent on transit supports or creates 50,000 jobs.

When transit systems or commuter rail lines are built, workers in construction industries see job opportunities with good pay and solid benefits. And when paired with smart procurement strategies and strong Buy America rules, transit-related job creation is further maximized by ensuring bus and rail cars are made here, in the United States. Translation? Not investing in our transit systems costs our country jobs in other sectors and leads to missed opportunities for economic growth.

When lawmakers consider federal transportation funding, it is imperative they reject cuts to our nation’s transit and commuter rail systems and robustly fund these programs. At a time when so many Americans are relying on public transportation as a lifeline to good jobs, investments that will secure and expand these services are more important than ever.

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